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  • The Postwar Arab World
  • Ali Hillal Dessouki (bio)

War is the culmination of human drama. The Middle East today is living in the shadow of a great war, a war whose impact will be felt for years to come. The war galvanized the peoples and states of the region, changed the balance of power there, and drew attention to the potential [End Page 63] vulnerability of many Middle Eastern regimes. It posed the threat of instability in a number of states, and fostered a region-wide atmosphere of emotionalism, sensationalism, and politicization. The shooting may have ended within weeks, but the war's political, social, and psychological effects are likely to linger for a long time to come.

It seems to me that the war has left mixed signals for democracy. There are two sets of lessons to be drawn. One, which I and others like me maintain, is that the war and the crisis that preceded it demonstrate the importance of democracy. Had there been democracy in many Arab countries, had democracy influenced the conduct of relations among Arab states, the crisis might have been dealt with at its roots—indeed, it might not even have occurred. The Gulf crisis, in other words, was the function of a lack of political participation, of legitimate regimes, of accountable governments.

I am afraid, however, that some of the region's rulers are drawing different conclusions. Worried by the chaos and confusion of the war's aftermath, these people think that what we will need in the coming months and years is discipline. Their emphasis on law and order is closely tied to concern for the security of their regimes.

The last decade or so preceding the war saw a steady, though slow process of democratization in the region. While it would probably be an exaggeration to speak of "winds of change," the handwriting (to shift the metaphor) was definitely on the wall. There were more calls for liberal freedoms, more moves toward multipartism, more appeals for constitutionalism and governmental accountability, and more growth among the institutions of civil society.

My own country, Egypt, can serve as an example of how this process has unfolded over the last 20 years, long predating the democratic ferment of the 1980s in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Egypt achieved its independence in 1923; from then until the military takeover of 1952, it had a multiparty system. For 25 years after that, it had a one-party regime. Then in 1977, it returned to a multiparty system.

In retrospect, it is apparent that the shift back toward multipartism began as early as 1967, in the wake of Egypt's defeat in the Six-Day War. People realized that defeat, as well as a number of other problems in our national life, had something to do with our country's lack of broad political participation and interest-group representation. In February and October 1968, students and workers took to the streets to call for democracy. The early 1970s were punctuated by massive nationwide demonstrations for the same purpose. These in turn led to a national [End Page 64] debate lasting from 1974 to 1976. In 1977 came the legal restoration of multiparty politics.

Since that time there have been ups and downs, of course, but freedom of speech and the press has endured. There are nine active political parties, although one-the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP)-remains dominant over a fragmented opposition. The judiciary has proven independent enough to nullify several of the other branches' decisions, most recently in 1990 when a court invalidated the existing election law and thereby forced the government to dissolve the National Assembly and call new elections.

Among the lessons to be drawn from Egypt's experience, I think, is that ruling elites will eventually respond to the forces of democracy. The Egyptian elite, in a sense, democratized from within. By encouraging democratic reforms under Sadat and Mubarak, the NDP regime became a partner in the democratization process, not its victim. Being a part of the process, the regime influenced it, and was influenced by it in turn. Thus the Egyptian experience involved a democratic movement to which the regime...


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